STATS ARTICLES 2003
Dubious Data Awards 2002
February 24 2003
The ten most misleading, inaccurate or downright lazy news interpretations of statistics or science
Grand Prize Winner
The "Accept No Imitations" Award for Most Over-hyped Story: Raelian Cloning
A group that believes we are descended from space aliens created a media feeding frenzy by claiming to have cloned two human infants, without providing any evidence of their success, their methods, or even the babies' existence. The coverage questioned their credibility, but it gave the group enormous visibility, and their "15 minutes of fame," in Andy Warhol's phrase, brought them to the attention of potential converts around the globe.
First Runner Up
Crazy Over Crop Circles
During the publicity campaign for Mel Gibson's blockbuster film "Signs," the NBC "Today Show" and CNN lent credence to the idea that we don't know how crop circles happen. CNN called them "shrouded in mystery." In fact, crop circles were exposed as a hoax back in 1992, when the hoaxers showed journalists how they created the patterns overnight by natural means. Unfortunately, they showed new hoaxers as well. The Raelians also cite crop circles as evidence for their beliefs, which shows they were watching TV over the summer.
Second Runner Up
Many major news organizations, including CBS, CNN and The New York Times, repeated former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano's claim on February 26 that under-age drinkers consume a quarter of all alcohol drunk in the United States. Unfortunately this number was based on a survey that over-sampled teenagers. As The New York Times conceded in a subsequent correction, the actual figure is only 11 percent.
PBS' NewsHour and the CBS Early Show aired a Federal Task Force on College Drinking claim that a remarkable 1,400 students are killed and 600,000 are assaulted each year because of alcohol. That figure would represent two thirds of all the assaults in the US, according to the FBI. But these "assaults" included everyone who said they were "pushed or hit" by anyone as a result of someone drinking. And the deaths included fatal auto and other accidents in which anyone (not only drivers) tested positive for any amount of alcohol.
Who Stole America's Children?
On Fox News Channel's July 16 "O'Reilly Factor," the host warned that there were "more than 100,000 abductions of children by strangers every year in the United States." In fact, only 3,000 to 5,000 such abductions are reported annually, and only 200 and 300 of these involve ransom, sexual abuse, or physical harm, including 50 murders. Horrific, yes. An epidemic? No. For the 50 million children under age 13, the chance of being abducted and murdered is literally one in a million.
Data To Hate
The Associated Press reported November 25 that the new hate crimes figures released by the FBI showed a 17 percent increase in bias-motivated crimes. In fact, the FBI's program to measure hate crimes is still being developed, and one year's figures cannot yet be compared with another's. We have no way of knowing whether hate crimes rose or fell between 2000 and 2001.
The New York Times claimed June 16 that the average temperature in Alaska "has risen about seven degrees over the last 30 years." This surprised experts at the Alaska Climate Research Center, whose figures show an increase of only 2.5 degrees in the same period. The Times corrected its mistake on July 11, but still claimed an increase of 5.4 degrees, which it justified by using the period from 1966 to 1995, rather than the "last 30 years" from 1973 to 2002.
Dirty Bomb Scare
When alleged terrorist Jose Padilla was arrested June 10 on suspicion of planning to make a "dirty bomb," NBC showed viewers a scenario in which a dirty bomb powered by 4,000 pounds of TNT exploded in Washington DC, with devastating results. Fortunately, that would be larger than most of the bombs used by the US air force, and it is plainly beyond the capabilities of Padilla or any known terrorist organization; even the Iraqis abandoned their dirty bomb program in 1987.
Drug Data Abuse
Reuters incorrectly reported December 2 that a new RAND Corporation study proved that marijuana was not a "gateway" drug, i.e., did not lead users to try harder drugs. The researchers were so incensed that they issued a press release denying Reuters' interpretation. Nevertheless, the original story ran without qualification in many newspapers, including the Washington Post.
In Class Or Inmates?
In August, many news outlets repeated the Justice Policy Institute's claim that "more African American men are incarcerated than enrolled in college." This is true, but it compares apples and oranges. You can go to prison at any age, for any length of time, but most people go to college for only a few years during their late teens and twenties. A comparison of African American men of college age shows 469,000 in college and only 180,000 in jail.